The Power of HIGH Expectations

This past week, I enjoyed reading my friend J.D. Roth’s article on the power of low expectations. In his post, he explains how his overall happiness had improved when he lowered his expectations for himself, others, and his blog. His anxiety lowered. His depression went dormant. I think that’s fantastic.

The root cause of this was that as his blog increased in popularity and became a full business, he felt the weight of this new business being a huge burden despite it rewarding him financially. The money is great but that pressure can be suffocating.

I know exactly what he’s going through.

We all have expectations for ourselves and no one ever ratchets back those numbers. It doesn’t matter how much money you made last year, it hurts a little if you make less this year. There’s a stress to trying to meet or beat the previous year.

That’s just how our minds work – we think everything should be going up up up. Down is bad.

For J.D., the solution to this pressure was finding a way to pull his foot off the gas pedal. He framed it as lowering his expectations and it worked for him.

I want to share an alternative way of looking at the idea of expectations:

Set the Right High Expectations

I have expectations on myself but it’s not for the typical expectations you think of.

When I was younger, I knew that good grades were important. I knew that being top of the class had some value. I also knew that my high school was filled with some of the smartest kids in the country and it was going to be very difficult (ie. take a LOT of time and even then, no guarantees) to do better than them.

To give you a sense of how absolutely bananas good my class was, my senior class had 4 of the 40 finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search.

10% of the finalists in this prestigious science competition came from a single public school – mine.

As I got older, I saw my peers work at tech startups or financial services companies and putting in long hours just to make a buck (or potential buck, in the case of startups). When you’re in your 20s, putting in long hours is no big deal – you have very few other responsibilities. Doing so in your 40s? Less appealing.

I realized that high grades and big paychecks were not the goal. What you wanted was what you get as a result of those – your time. This is why the FIRE movement is so appealing – people are realizing that the goal is more control over your time. (if you just rolled your eyes, you may misunderstand what the FIRE movement means… I know because I did too)

I have high expectations of where I spend my time and I guard it fiercely. If I control my time, I’m happy. This is an exceptionally high expectation (especially in 2020 with the pandemic!) and one I’m not willing to give up.

This is not to say I don’t have high expectations in other areas, especially when it comes to work, but I take good care to separate the things I can control with the things I cannot.

Simply Ignore What You Cannot Control

This website brings in the bulk of our income but the income is a lagging indicator. The leading indicator is site traffic. The more traffic a website has, the more income it’s likely to earn. Much of the traffic to this site comes from search engines.

From time to time, search engines adjust their algorithms and the site appears higher and lower in the results for various search terms.

This can be extremely stressful to a site owner because your traffic can change drastically through no fault of your own. When it goes up, it’s a time to celebrate! When it goes time, it’s a time to cry!

Sadly, there isn’t much you can do to control this in the near term.

When most people talk about keeping low expectations, I believe they are referring to the items you have limited to little control over. Now when I see traffic go up or down, I start to feel my feelings, catch myself, and just move onto something else. I ignore them. Nothing you can do so don’t celebrate or cry.

For example, you can’t control what your friends and family do. You can’t control what anyone does! So if someone disappoints or upsets you, I start to feel my feelings, catch myself, and move on. (I only do this for the cry side of the equation – celebrations still happen!)

By the way, this is not easy to do. 🙂

So in this regard, I completely agree with J.D. about low expectations out of the things you cannot control. In fact, I’d lower it even more to NO expectations!

Happiness is Both Relative and Absolute

J.D. brings up a book, Engineering Happiness, in which the authors define happiness as reality minus expectations.

I support that thinking with one big caveat – it’s too static. If your reality isn’t above your expectations, you may not be happy but it’s not the whole picture.

If your reality is increasingly gaining on your expectations (versus remaining static or declining), I argue that your happiness will be higher.

As a very simple example, if you think you should be making “six figures” a year but are making $90,000 – you may not be happy. You’re only making five! Yuck!

But if you made $80,000 last year and this year it’s up to $90,000 – you’re much happier than you were last year. You haven’t yet gotten to your goal of six figures but you’re $10,000 closer in just a single year. That’s huge.

It reminds us that everything is relative. It’s about where you are but also about how far you’ve come as much as it is about where you are right now.

I want to also direct you to the work of Jōsei Toda and Relative vs. Absolute Happiness. Toda talks about two types of happiness:

  • Relative happiness is what we look for outside of ourselves – in other people, in our accomplishments, in the things we buy or the events experience.
  • Absolute happiness is what we find in ourselves – not influenced by external conditions, it is “deep down, covered by the thorny shrubbery of desire, jealousy, anger, and negative self-talk.”

I really enjoy that framework of thinking about happiness. Avoid the temptation to pass judgment on the more fleeting relative happiness, we need both in our lives, but I aim to try to find more time to hone in on the absolute.

High Doesn’t Mean High Output All the Time

When you start doing any kind of physical training, there’s a tendency to think that you need to go hard at it all the time. If it’s lifting weights, you think you need to lift heavy and lift often. If it’s running, you think you need to run fast and run often.

If your expectation is that you want to be strong or fast, you want it as soon as possible too, right?

The reality of reaching that expectation is much different. You need periods of high output but you also need periods of rest. You need to vary what “high output” looks like – sometimes you need to lift something very heavy, sometimes you need to lift something light with more repetitions.

And most importantly, you need rest. You need to stretch. You need to do things that don’t appear to improve the #1 statistic but have a huge impact.

If you don’t rest and you don’t stretch, you don’t give your body time to recovery and you risk injury.

High expectations doesn’t mean you need high output all the time – in fact, high expectations should mean you have your eye on the bigger goal, the big picture, and can adjust your daily habits to fit that bigger journey.

It’s fine to have high expectations but take breaks because you know that your mind and body need those moments of quiet if you want to succeed.

The Risk of Low Expectations

The biggest risk of low expectations is that you fail to achieve.

There are a handful of things that all humans need that we don’t often talk about. It’s not obvious in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

One of these things is a need for achievement. More or less, we all have this need. For some, it’s very high (this is why you have marathons and ultra-marathons). For others, not so much (wheee! fun runs and 5Ks!).

While it may manifest itself in different ways, the risk of low expectations is that you achieve far less than you are capable of.

Why is this bad? Because you may be trading present-day happiness for future-day regret. It’s not always the case but it is a non-zero risk.

This is a Long Hike

The best analogy I have for this is that it’s like hiking up a mountain.

If you pick a small mountain (low expectations), the journey will still be hard. The reward will still be great. You’ll just reach it a little sooner and need another mountain.

If you pick a large mountain, the journey will still be hard. The reward will still be great. It’ll take much longer to reach the peak and you’ll have more introspection along the way. Whether this results in happiness, or being unhappy, is more about your ability to manage the journey and less about the mountain you picked. It’ll be harder simply because you’ll have more opportunities to assess the situation. You’ll have more chances to quit and give up. To get down on yourself for not being faster or stronger or whatever.

The only truth is that the only reason you won’t reach the top is if you decide you don’t want to.

And when you do reach the top, or if you decide to quit, you’ll just pick another mountain and do it all over again.

Other Posts You May Enjoy:

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About Jim Wang

Jim Wang is a forty-something father of four who is a frequent contributor to Forbes and Vanguard's Blog. He has also been fortunate to have appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Entrepreneur, and Marketplace Money.

Jim has a B.S. in Computer Science and Economics from Carnegie Mellon University, an M.S. in Information Technology - Software Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a Masters in Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University. His approach to personal finance is that of an engineer, breaking down complex subjects into bite-sized easily understood concepts that you can use in your daily life.

One of his favorite tools (here's my treasure chest of tools, everything I use) is Empower Personal Dashboard, which enables him to manage his finances in just 15-minutes each month. They also offer financial planning, such as a Retirement Planning Tool that can tell you if you're on track to retire when you want. It's free.

>> Read more articles by Jim

Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, not those of any bank or financial institution. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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3 years ago

I really appreciate the reflective nature of this article. I’ve been reading these for a few months now, and this one particularly resonated with me. I particularly liked the analogy of the mountain and journey. We often see each goal as the same size mountain, wanting to get to the top at the same speed and with the same vigor. When really each new mountain will perhaps need a different approach. I also really enjoyed the part about balancing output with rest. As a high achiever, I fall into the trap of thinking rest is unproductive. When the reality is… Read more »

Accidentally Retired
3 years ago

“It’s fine to have high expectations but take breaks because you know that your mind and body need those moments of quiet if you want to succeed.” Yes I agree with this wholeheartedly. You can’t set high expectations without also knowing your limits. This goes for anything from sleep, to ensuring you take vacations and time off to actually enjoy the moment. At least for me, it turned out that I was able to set high expectations, while also finding the balance to know when to take the foot off the gas. So anyways, this is a long winded way… Read more »

Frances Campbell
2 years ago

Hi Jim: I so enjoy your writings. You are so knowledgeable and intelligent. I do not have financial problems yet but after 4 years of Biden mismanagement of the USA economy–Who knows?? I take longer to manage my account as almost monthly I have a tax free muni being called or maturing and I replace the bond as soon as possible as I believe in keeping Capital at work 24/7. I am especially fond of good insured Texas muni bonds. The other half of the portfolio is stocks and a few etf’s. Every night I scroll through for non re-invested… Read more »

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